When did this happen, I muttered to myself as I stood clutching the handle of a shopping cart. A woman standing next to me gave me an odd look and pushed her squeaking cart around the next isle. I was staring at lawn chairs in the biggest supermarket I've ever been in.

I'm not that nave. I know that in order for supermarkets to stay competitive today they have to sell more than food. Department stores, too, follow this rule and inversely have aisles of groceries. It's as if supermarkets and department stores have morphed into one.  But it suddenly seemed overwhelming as I stared down one of the many "non-food isles."

I'm old enough that I can remember the smaller neighborhood grocery stores and the little mom-and-pop corner stores that once dotted city streets. When I was a kid we called them delicatessens. I can even remember (I was very young) the guy who my mom referred to as the vegetable huckster. He sold vegetables from the back of his tarp-covered truck. Back then you went to supermarkets for food. For other items, such as clothing and lawn chairs, and whatever else, you went to a department store.

This is what these stores were destined to become, I guess, if you take the word supermarket literally: a really big and incredible market. My dictionary lists the meaning of the word super as "superior in size, quality, number, or degree." Maybe they should change their names to enormous-markets, or super-duper-quadruple-markets. I tried to picture the size of the room I'd be standing in if the tightly packed and cluttered isles and shelves were removed. I'd bet you could race cars in here. Now you could barely move a shopping cart five feet without hitting some sort of cross-merchandising display that jutted into the isle.  

It was during the holiday season and the store was packed. I was still mourning the death of Joe Strummer, front-man for the band The Clash. Their songs had been going through my head for a week, and now as I stood staring at lawn chairs Lost In A Supermarket crept through my brain...I'm all lost in the supermarket...I can no longer shop happily. A television commercial for this supermarket was also in my head. On television everyone looked so happy, like they were having the time of their lives. The people around me didn't look that way. I'm sure I didn't either.  

I originally stopped here because I needed a few things, but mostly because I had heard about this place. I was told it was one of the largest grocery stores in the area, if not the whole northeast. I just had to see it, I was told. I approached the parking lot in my late model station wagon with a certain amount of trepidation; the sea of SUVs and minivans scared me a little.

Entering the enormous foyer there was a wall of snow shovels for sale on my left, and to my right was a small forest of artificial Christmas trees in various states of decoration. In the store, after making my way through the piles and piles of glimmering produce, that had everything from fresh black trumpet mushrooms to tiny potatoes no larger than my thumbnail, I grabbed a coffee at the coffee bar, I felt I needed it. Opposite the coffee bar was the sushi bar, which the chefs were making on the spot. When I approached the sushi kiosk an attractive and well-dressed Asian woman appeared and asked if she could help with my selection. It was a nice touch, I thought, a sushi hostess in a supermarket. The song was still worming its way through my head...I came here for the special offer, a guaranteed personality.

To get to the actual groceries I traversed my way through the prepared foods area, which was flanked on one side by hearth baked breads and pastries displayed on pedestals like little jewels, and on the other by a hot and cold foods case that was filled with foods to rival that of a fine dining restaurant. It offered everything from rack of lamb to roast chicken and shrimp kebobs. Amidst this there was the stir-fry station and the pasta station, and beyond that there was meat, fish, and cheese of warehouse-like proportions. Overlooking all of this was a second floor restaurant. I couldn't help but think how we have too many choices in our lives...I heard the people who live on the ceiling scream and fight most noisily.

I impulsively grabbed a lamb chop and tossed it in my cart and then barreled around a corner almost careening into the same woman who heard me muttering earlier, and I found myself in a store within the store: the health food store. The lighting was different here, but when I looked to the ceiling I could see that I hadn't left the building. It was a trick, I thought, just a mind game...We had a hedge back in the suburb, over which I could never see. After what seemed like two or three minutes but was really twenty-five, I left this area with organic chickpeas. The health food store led into the bookstore, where I browsed the latest best sellers and my favorite magazines displayed in mahogany-like shelves, which led into the cookware and small appliance section. 

After spending half an hour in this department I found myself wanting to purchase a heavy-duty 6 quart electric mixer, and I wondered when I had put the package of "restaurant quality tablecloths" in my cart. I returned the tablecloths to the shelf and was glad I didn't have my credit card with me.

Next came the frozen foods section. The freezers were also fronted by mahogany-like wood and the lighting seemed a little subdued. Maybe it was my imagination, but it was eerily quiet here. That and the odd glow from behind the frozen glass made me think of an early Star Wars movie, possibly the scene where Hans Solo was frozen in liquid metal. I didn't spend much time here.

Rounding the corner I found myself in the ethnic foods section. This area was impressive with both the amount and breadth of its offerings. I contemplated a 25 pound bag of imported basmati rice but figured it would take years to eat it. Feeling a little inundated at this point I just grabbed a jar of tahini and pushed on. By now I had had it. I was tired and my head hurt. I'd spent more than an hour-and-a-half here and all that was in my cart was chickpeas, tahini, and a lamb chop; distracted by the shimmering produce I forgot to pick up bananas and now they were on the other side of the store. Screw 'em, I thought, I'm not going all the way back there. I was only a little more than halfway through and wanted out, but I had heard there was a good beer selection and was determined to get some. I pushed on, now with a slight sense of urgency, breezing past isles of groceries and sundries. The beer selection was substantial. I opted for a 4 pack of Belgian ale that cost twice as much as a 6 pack of domestic beer. It's got to be good, I thought...it's pricey.

When I finally reached the check out lines it was like toll booths on the I-90 at rush hour. Overburdened carts were lined up into the isles, and there was a person managing the traffic flow. I did what I always do to pass the time while in queue: paged through one of the latest trashy magazines. The cover story on the one I picked up read: The 50 (or was it 25?) Most Intriguing People Of The Year, or something like that. It's what caught my attention. After browsing the lineup not one of them intrigued me. Reaching the cashier I was asked if I had "a card;" I handed her my key chain that bore "discount" key cards to three supermarket corporations...I'm all tuned in, I see all the programs, I save coupons from packets of tea.

When I got home I made hummus out of the chickpeas and tahini, and diced and sauted the lamb chop and put it on top of the hummus. I ate it while I drank two bottles of my expensive beer and listened to Joe Strummer belt it out. Eating in a sort of stunned state-the kind of state you might be in if you spent the day at an amusement park, or an afternoon at the beach in the hot sun-I contemplated my evening...I've got my giant hit discotheque album, I empty a bottle, I feel a bit free. I'd spent the better part of an evening in this store and I was, at various times, appalled, thrilled, and even intrigued (yes, intrigued), and I wondered if I'd be back. Of course I would, they had everything I needed...and more.

Hummus With Sauted Lamb
Yield: 2 servings
1 cups chickpeas, cooked or canned and rinsed
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced         
1/2 cup tahini   
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice     
2 tablespoons cold water   
1/2 teaspoon salt    
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces diced lamb 

Combine the first seven ingredients in a food processor and pure. Spread the hummus across a platter or two separate plates and set aside. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over high heat, and then carefully add the diced lamb. Sear the lamb quickly and then arrange it across the hummus. If desired, garnish the plate(s) with chopped parsley and paprika. Serve with good quality bread.